L. J. Curtis - 12 December 1992
'm very honored to be named a Distinguished University Professor, and
I'm delighted for this opportunity to address our graduating class.
However, I'd like to speak to you today, not as a Physics Professor, but
rather as a fellow alumnus. I feel much in common with those who are
degrees today. I can well recall my own feelings when I sat, almost where
you are now. I was happy to be getting my degree, but I was sad to be
my friends, and I was apprehensive about the future. All this I remember
vividly, but, to place my role here today in context, I must confess: I
can't recall who gave Commencement Address, and I certainly don't
recall anything that was said.
A lot of nice things have happened to me since my Commencement. I'd like
recount for you one example, that occurred exactly 13 years after my
I had been invited by the President of Stockholm University to supervise
the Examination of a Swedish Doctoral Candidate. I can recall my thoughts
at that time; I was addressing the faculty in an elegant Grand Hall in
I was dressed in white tie and tails; I was speaking entirely in Swedish;
and I was describing some fascinating new research developments. It was
an exhilarating examination: That particular Doctoral Candidate is now the
Vice Chair of Physics in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and he
the selection and awarding of the Nobel Prizes. But I remember thinking
to myself as I stood there: "How did a kid from Libbey High School
get into this place?"
If any of my high school classmates are here today, they can tell you:
this wasn't the direction I was headed when I graduated from High School.
My scientific career has not been a case of early childhood selection. I
had little interest in Math and Science in High School, and I had no
specific career objectives when I entered the University of Toledo. With
this unlikely start, is it possible that I did, somehow, prepare for the
unforeseen events that subsequently occurred? My answer to you is yes - I
prepared by attending the University of Toledo. Since we share this, I'd
like to give you my perspective.
First, let me state that, by any measure, I received a superb undergraduate
education here. In graduate school, that education gave me a significant
advantage over the other students. The competition then was very strong
- after my first year, half the students in my classes had failed out! Many
of these students came from very prestigious Universities, and many were
very bright, but I had the advantage of a truly rigorous undergraduate
preparation. Toledoans are sometimes surprised when I tell them this.
As an undergraduate I was a student in an exceptionally strong Engineering
Physics Program. It existed because of the efforts of a man named John Turin.
Dr. Turin later became Dean of the Graduate School, and had earlier served
on a committee that ran the entire University during the illness of a former
President. He died in 1973, but his legacy remains today.
UT's strong Academic Programs have been called "Toledo's Best Kept
Secret." Typically, I simply stumbled into this program. Nobody outside
the University recommended it to me. But there I was pushed hard, not only
by my Professors, but also by the other students. The best students in my
classes here were as bright as any that I have encountered since. That is
still true of the students in the classes I teach today. The University
should be commended for vigorously seeking to attract National Merit Scholars
and other top students. Competition stretches us all - it improves our
teaching, and it permits students at all levels to judge their own talents
against National Norms. If you have kept pace with the best students
in your classes here, you'll do well anywhere.
Research also played a significant role in my undergraduate education. At
the University of Toledo we have never separated our research faculty from
our teaching faculty. Smaller universities often lack the critical mass
to mount research programs. Larger Universities often have certain faculty
members who primarily teach, and others who primarily do research. Toledo
has an ideal size. Here, many do both. In this regard, our graduate and
our undergraduate programs strengthen each other. As a student I profited
greatly from this mix of teaching and research. I was excited by the fact
that my Professors were also contributing to the knowledge of their fields,
and I enjoyed the enthusiasm that research brought to their teaching.
I participated in many research activities here as an undergraduate. For
example, I worked with Ed Foster to design and construct a subcritical
reactor, with funds we obtained from the Atomic Energy Commission. John
Turin got me a summer job at the Surface Combustion Corporation where he
consulted. Together we developed and prototyped a new type of Pelletizing
Furnace to concentrate Taconite ores at the mining site. I also worked with
Earl Hays on problems in oceanography.
This undergraduate interest in Oceanography culminated later, when Earl
Hays arranged for me to work at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
There I constructed a new type of hydrophone array. I was able to take my
array out to sea, and to use it to study the ocean floor by continuous
profiling. I recall how we streamed my hydrophones on long cables behind
the ship. Schools of dolphins followed the ship, and they liked to swim
with my hydrophones. If I sent out a ping, the dolphins responded to me
with coos, and squeaks, and clicks. During the long weeks at sea, I had
plenty of time to converse with the dolphins, while I was alone on the
night watch. It was with sadness that I pinged my last goodbye to my
dolphin friends, when we left to return to home port.
We still place great emphasis on involving undergraduates in front line
research here. This year we received a $130 000 grant from the National
Science Foundation to support "Research Experiences for Undergraduates.
We were one of 20 sites in the Nation to be awarded such a grant (we were
the only such site in Ohio). These experiences can provide students with
many new insights, and options they did not have when they entered the
My PhD is from the University of Michigan. It's a very good school. But
if I had chosen the University of Michigan as my undergraduate institution,
I would never have been drawn into Physics the way I was at Toledo. If,
like ''Back to the Future,'' I could go back to High School now, and change
my decision to attend the University of Toledo, my entire life would change.
Nothing that President Horton described would have happened.
Similarly, my research career would also have been totally different if
I were a Professor at some other University. Toledo has provided me with
the freedom, security, and opportunity to explore the research and teaching
that I want to do. I was granted Sabbaticals, Unpaid Research Leaves, and
many other opportunities that have permitted me to follow my own curiosity.
And, I've been able to share these experiences with my students here. John
Turin promised me that if I accepted a Professorship at the University of
Toledo, I could still see the world. Those who have followed him have kept
the promises he made to me.
But, as you know, the University provides opportunities, but it is you
who must provide the hard work. The degrees you will be awarded today have
demanded sacrifices. Sacrifices not only by you, but also by your families,
many of whom are here today. Unfortunately the hard work doesn't stop here.
One set of skills will not last you a lifetime. Many of you will now enter
new and unfamiliar situations. The most important skill that you take with
you today is the skill of learning.
But my generation does have at least one element of wisdom that I think
is worth passing on to you. Our parents and grandparents lived through two
World Wars and the Great Depression. Regardless of where we grew up, we
all learned from them the same lesson, and that is : "There is only
one thing that they can't take away from you, and that is what is in
Some people are predicting bad things for the future. They say that yours
will be "the first generation that does not have things better than
your parents did." Well, perhaps we're just in the process of redefining
success - different isn't necessarily worse. But if you accept the premise
that your future is predestined, then you may not try as hard as your parents
did, and this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You can increase your options - you do so by investing in your own
talents. To paraphrase Ben Hogan, "It's all a matter of luck - and
the more you practice, the luckier you get." You can't always get what
you want - but if you choose your options carefully, you can wind up wanting
what it is you get. The future is always uncertain: You may be lucky enough
to live in the best of times; you may be unlucky enough to live in the worst
of times; but these are the only times you've got to choose from! You're
born when you're born, that's just the luck of the draw.
I was charmed by the last Dr. Seuss book, by the late Theodor Geisel. It's
a little Commencement Address for children entitled "Oh the places
you'll go!" I told you earlier where I went, 13 years after my
- I wonder where you will be, 13 years from now. That puts us in the year
2005 - it could be very exciting, if you do it right!
You have received an education here that is as good as you wanted
to make it. My advice to you is: Don't be afraid to stretch yourself to
reach high goals. It's disappointing to fail, but it helps you to define
your own limits, and it enhances the joy you feel when you exceed your own
expectations. Don't be restricted by the narrow visions of other people
around you - instead, measure yourself against external standards. And,
most importantly - do what you want to do. You may be surprised to
find that your education here has prepared you to succeed to a much greater
degree than you now realize.
I'd like to close with some thoughts that I first read as an undergraduate.
They date back almost 200 years to the writings of a man named Stephen
(born Étienne de Grellet du Mabillier). He wrote:
Thank you for being our students. We hope that this University has provided
you with much that you will come to value. We also hope that our future
stewardship of your Alma Mater will make both you and me rightfully proud
to be graduates of it.
"I expect to pass through this world but once;
Any good therefore, that I am to do,
or any kindness that I am to show to any fellow creature;
Let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it,
for I shall not pass this way again."